The dictionary writers
Samuel Johnson completed the first English dictionary in 1755. Apparently Johnson was known for his drinking. On the other hand, Noah Webster, who wrote the famous Webster Dictionary, was known as a short, pale, smug, boastful, humorless, yet religious man. Webster is also accused of crediting himself with coining many words which had been in the language for centuries.
When the Webster dictionary was published in 1828, contemporaries commented that it lacked real knowledge, was full of crudities and errors, and was of little purpose. Webster was not a newcomer to the literary scene. His spelling book, called the Blue-Black Speller because of its binding, was one of the best-selling books of the 19th century. Even so, Webster took a comparatively small royalty advance on his dictionary, expecting it to sell 250,000 copies. He didn’t expect that it would go on to sell more than 30 million copies during the next 12 years.
Two of the men who would continue to benefit from Webster’s fifty years of labor were Charles and George Merriam, thus the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of today.
Perhaps the most famous dictionary is the Oxford English Dictionary. When the Philological Society of London decided in 1857 to compile the English language, they did not realize the extent of the task. Eventually in 1879, James A H Murray was appointed to gather a group of linguists to further the compilation, estimating that it would consist of 6,400 pages in two volumes. Five years later they had only reached the word ‘ant’.
In April 1928, 50 years after it was started, the Oxford English Dictionary was finally published. It consisted of 400,000 words and phrases in 10 volumes. The latest complete edition covers more than 600,00 words over 22,000 pages, includes 33,000 Shakespeare quotations, and is bound in 20 volumes. All of which, in electronic edition at 540 megabytes big, is also available on a single CD or a single USB memory stick… or online. Or – proof of progress – download it on your Kindle in less than a minute.